The Trump years

— 7 minute read — By Sam Portillo and Will Jones

Politics as unusual

Photo by Trump White House Archived on Flickr.

By Sam Portillo

On 20th January 2017, America’s new president promised change. Continuing themes from his campaign, he promised to end the disconnect between the Washington establishment and struggling families across the country. “Today,” he said, “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another. We are transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

The newly-inaugurated Commander in Chief did not want to waste any time, delivering the shortest address to the nation in forty years, barely 16 minutes in duration.

Despite being the oldest president in U.S. history, President Trump was far from a stickler for tradition. He chose to denounce the ‘mainstream media’ and conventional methods for White House communication, often preferring to announce policies and provide commentary of events on Twitter. His daily tweet count rose from 7 in his first year in office, to 34 in the final year.

There were other signs that conventions were about to be broken. Trump named his Chief of Staff and former alt-right media executive, now political strategist Steve Bannon, as “equal partners” in the White House hierarchy. Other controversial appointments included oil baron Rex Tillerson, whose confirmation as Secretary of State received record opposition in Congress, and Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, who needed a vote from the Vice President to break an unparalleled 50-50 tie. Tillerson survived only thirteen months in the administration, before finding out he had been replaced from a tweet by Trump.

Donald Trump sacks Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state | Financial Times
“Congratulations all!” Trump’s Secretary of State discovered he had been replaced from a tweet.

Trump’s inauguration inspired the largest day of protest since the Vietnam War, with 200,000 people in the capital and an estimated 4 million across the country marching in opposition to the misogynistic elements of the new president’s rhetoric. The event organiser’s official website claimed they wanted to send a “bold message” on the new administration’s first full day in power, and remind the world that “women’s rights are human rights”.

At the same time, inside the White House, the new administration were busy disputing the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, dismissing photographic and media estimates of 250,000 to claim “a million and a half” people had attended the event. Appearing on NBC news, one of Trump’s advisers defended the claims as “alternative facts”. The truth of the crowd’s size was in of itself farcical, but sent a strong signal that the media was going to have its work cut out in clarifying the truth.

Some commentators have described the Trump years as ‘post-truth’ – a reality in which one half of the country believes in one set of facts, and the other, a completely opposing set. More often than not, Trump put his weight behind the mistruths: the New York Times counted over 30,000 lies told personally by the president, around 20 per day.

Trump’s lax relationship with reality would pay the ultimate price in his final year in office, as 400,000 Americans lost their lives to a pandemic that swept across the country with little resistance from the protector in Chief.

America adorns great significance on the first 100 days of a new presidency. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt promised fast and dramatic action to soothe the Great Depression, the public has used the first three months or so of a president’s tenure as a measure of their intent, productivity and loyalty to their promises. Trump’s first hundred were surprisingly uneventful from a policy perspective, especially considering he was bestowed with Republican majorities in the House and Senate. What he lacked in policy productivity, though, he made up for in judicial appointments. After four years in the White House, Trump had appointed 54 appeals court judges – just one less than Obama, who was president for eight years. Two-thirds of these appointments were white men. Trump also appointed 174 district court judges – again, a disproportionately high number compared to other presidents.

Trump’s presidency coincided with the death or retirement of three Supreme Court justices, including progressive icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose place he filled with Amy Coney Barrett. Each of Trump’s appointments interpret the Constitution from an originalist perspective – affirming how they believe the eighteenth-century authors intended it.

Trump’s second nomination, Brett Kavanaugh, was confirmed by a historically slim 52-48 vote in the Senate, after sexual allegations were made against him. Ginsburg’s replacement was also a contentious matter in the Senate, as when Justice Scalia died in 2016 – the last election year – Republicans had implored Obama to wait for the next president to be decided, so that they could choose the appointment. Court appointments can only be replaced when they retire, or die – and with the oldest conservative justice a relatively sprightly 72 years of age, the prospect of Democrat presidents tipping the scales in the other direction any time soon seems slim.

Trump’s Supreme Court appointments may cast a longer shadow over American politics than any of his revokable policies. Photo by Trump White House archived on Flickr.

It is fortunate that Supreme Court justices are life appointments, because Trump may well have tried to sack them himself. Trump’s tenure as president was marked by a constant stream of sackings, resignations and shuffle-ups. He fired his National Security Adviser in February 2017, and the FBI Director in May. Two of the most powerful officials in the White House – Preibus and Bannon – were fired in July and August respectively. By the end of that fatal first year, around 1 in 3 of Trump’s original staff were no longer holding their position.

Staff members have described the White House environment as confused and insecure. Trump reportedly preferred to source his information from the television (in particular, Fox News) and asked his briefers to orate their reports to him in summary, rather than hand him long documents to read. Trump was reportedly angered by information that contradicted his pre-emptive beliefs, and two anonymous briefers claim they were instructed to withold information from the president that may have upset him.

Many of Trump’s colleagues in D.C. had concerns about the ethics of his leadership, on both sides of the partisan divide. Former Republican presidential hopeful John McCain opposed Trump on many issues, revoking his reluctant support for the party’s candidate after footage emerged of him claiming “you can do anything” to women when rich and famous. Many politicians, including McCain, a former prisoner of war, were alarmed by Trump’s warmness towards autocrats and dictators.

McCain would go on to deny Trump the majority in the Senate he needed to repeal Obama’s healthcare protections.

In February 2020, the last Republican to be on a presidential ballot before Mr. Trump, Mitt Romney, became the first senator in U.S. history to vote to convict a president of his own party, citing abuse of power for personal and political reasons.

“It’s what autocrats do”: Romney votes to remove Trump from office for soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election

For all that was inconsistent and surprising about Trump’s presidency, his foreign policy was remarkably predictable. Put simply, he believed that America gave too much time and money to other parts of the world. He waged a trade war with China, attempting to discourage businesses and consumers from spending on Chinese imports by imposing lofty tariffs on goods: 25 percent on steel, up to 50 percent on solar panels and washing machines. He threatened to withdraw the U.S. from NATO unless other member states upped their financial contributions. The existence of the EU also seemed to irk Trump, which, as a regulation-happy international organisation, should not come as a surprise. Trump also pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and, angered by the inconvenience of the global pandemic, ceased its membership of the WHO.

President Trump’s ideology-led attitude towards immigration caused government gridlock on two separate occassions – once over the deportation of immigrants who had arrived as minors, and another over funding towards a U.S.-Mexico border wall. His presidency saw a decrease in the number of Muslim and Mexican people arriving in the country and a 40-year low in refugee admissions.

Trump was a uniquely divisive president. In 2016, he lost the national popular vote by almost 3 million, only claiming victory thanks to a number of narrow margins in battleground states. Since taking office, he held consistently low approval ratings, peaking at 46 percent in March 2020 – an increase that may be explained by a ‘rally to the flag’ as America declared war on the pandemic.

For all its controversies and rule-breaking, the Trump presidency had not conceded any major failures until this point. The bilionaire president had overseen consistent economic growth, kept the military strong, championed American patriotism on the world stage and given a middle finger to the rest of the world when necessary. He had not given his supporters a substantial reason to abandon the MAGA mission. These factors, coupled with the incumbent advantage, made Trump’s re-election likelier than his victory in 2016.

The depth of the coronavirus began to crystallise, however, and millions of Americans felt the glaring lack of leadership in D.C. intimately – in their homes, in their families, in their towns and communities. From 1 in 25 in February, the unemployment rate rocketed to almost 1 in 7, as millions lost their jobs due to health-imposed lockdowns. Little financial support from the government followed. All the while, Trump downplayed the severity of the pandemic, dismissing the need for lockdowns, face masks, and instead suggesting the virus would naturally “go away”.

The consequences of coronavirus were real and painful for millions. When the American people were struggling most, Trump underestimated the scale of the crisis and undermined any effective response. The police murder of George Floyd in May energised civil rights activists and African American voters further, helping to ensure a record-high number of votes for Trump’s challenger, Biden, and, a histoic mandate against the sitting president.

The storm after the storm

A mob of Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Leah Mills for Reuters.

By Will Jones

Outgoing presidents hold their place at the desk of the Oval Office until January’s ‘Inauguration Day’, albeit with substantially less power than during their official term. They become the ‘lame duck’, losing the influence over the politicians they once controlled. Such is the brutal evolution of the Washington bubble, as soon as a new figure spearheads the country’s direction, the old leader is left to dissolve into relative obscurity – or as close as one can get to this after governing the free world.

Trump was not a normal president, so his lame duck period was unorthodox. The egomaniac in Trump was never going to sit back and allow Biden to steal his limelight, let alone his presidency. Whilst the majority of the world started to care slightly less about Trump, he didn’t care any less about himself. Thus, his final months of premiership continued much in the same deleterious vain as the prior four years.

President Trump Makes No Remarks During Veterans Day Observance At  Arlington | KPBS
Trump looks somber at his first public appearance after the election loss: Veterans Day in the Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by Brendan Smialowski for Getty Images.

Trump’s personal attorney and landscaping enthusiast, Rudy Giuliani, filed countless lawsuits in an attempt to overturn the election result on Trump’s behalf. The hair-dye connoisseur, fresh from a disturbing appearance in Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’, worked with the outgoing president’s family to instil the idea in Trump supporters that the election was illegally robbed from them. The echo-chamber frenzy that followed was probably even easier to achieve than Trump anticipated.

On 6th January, the day that Joe Biden was set to be certified by Congress as the 46th President of the United States, Trump held the ‘Save America’ rally on The Ellipse lawn outside of the White House. He encouraged his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” and “show strength”. This sentiment was echoed by Giuliani, who called for “trial by combat”.

The case for disbarring Rudy Giuliani, other Trump lawyers—and even some  lawmakers | Fortune
Giuliani addresses the crowd at the ‘Save America’ rally. Photo by Brendan Smialowski for Getty Images.

Protestors soon descended on the Capitol – the legendary home of American legislature – overtopping the barriers, swamping the steps and pushing the underprepared police force ever closer to the doors of the building. The certification taking place in the House Chamber was suspended, with congressmen and women directed into safe areas. Vice President Mike Pence, whom many supporters believed had betrayed their leader by refusing to place Trump’s baseless claims over his constitutional duty to uphold the election result, was escorted by federal agents to a secure location.

As thousands occupied the podium where Joe Biden’s inauguration was due to take place mere weeks later, we were reminded of the fragility of democracy. The Biden victory was celebrated as the firm culmination of chaotic and divisive Trumpism. The storming of the Capitol proved that this attitude had permeated the very fabric of American society and was not going to evaporate under the impetuous influence of a new leader.

The mob soon seeped through to the interior, occupying the cavernous Rotunda and spilling into corridors containing the offices of the nation’s most important people. Protestors took photos in the office of Speaker Pelosi and on the Senate floor. As a group attempted to breach the secure areas, one woman was fatally shot.

2 men in high profile photos among latest charged in DC riot
The storming of Capitol saw some bizarre characters occupying the home of U.S. legislature. Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo for EPA.

Despite calling for his supporters to stand down in a Twitter video, the President continued the narrative that the election was stolen. Perhaps Trump’s greatest personal problem is his inability to downgrade. The idea that bigger is better forms a central part of his psyche. This is arguably why a phrase he’s frequented over his term has been “the likes of which we’ve never seen before”. Every achievement has to be a progression on a previous achievement. Trump has always upgraded: evolving from the son of a millionaire into a billionaire business magnate with more investments than sense. He was lost because he didn’t know how to go backwards. His answer to not knowing what to do post-White House was simply a refusal to concede power until the very last opportunity.

In the weeks following the Capitol riots, he was banned from his beloved Twitter for incitement to insurrection – numerous other social platforms soon followed. The democratic process had not silenced Trump, so his forms of communication had to be physically removed. This was the beginning of the end for the former president. The attacks were widely condemned, with Trump baring the blame for shamelessly fuelling a perilously undemocratic idea. Trump’s act against the Constitution gave allies the ticket they needed to jump ship, and the House Democrats soon filed the articles for impeachment, throwing Trump’s future away from the White House into doubt. For his part in inciting an insurrection against the U.S. Government, Trump became the first president in history to be impeached twice.

On the handover day though, he promised that the movement was ‘only just beginning’ – expediting the belief that he will be back in some form come 2024. In an un-Trump fashion, he openly wished the new administration luck and condemned the attacks that happened on his watch. He then exited the stage to ‘YMCA’ by The Village People – a gratifying return to the bizarreness we’ve become desensitised to during his tenure.

Trump gives farewell address: "We did what we came here to do" - Axios
Trump bids farewell to his Washington D.C. after becoming the first president since Nixon not to attend the inauguration of his successor. Photo by Mandel Ngan for Getty Images.

With an unusual music choice ringing in our ears, and a memory of the day a man dressed as a bison sat at the Senate desk, we finally draw a line under the Trump presidency. When Donald Trump was sworn in as president, he promised to ‘faithfully execute… the Constitution’ – he nearly did, but with an entirely different meaning to the word execute. It has been a surreal presidency with harrowingly real consequences. And whilst it’s all over for now, the human race is never far away from repeating the past.